Rebel Without A Cause (1955) directed by Nicholas Ray


A poster on a wall, a key ring, a clock, a place mat and dozens of biographies. James Dean in 2010 is big business, the business of lost teenage dreams and dead iconic film stars. The iconic quiff, the red bomber jacket, 501's, tick tock. Rebel Without A Cause is the movie that cemented Dean in the eyes of America's youth at the dawn of Rock n Roll. Ray's picture is a zeitgeist moment in cinema, capturing the nonchalance of teenage resistance to post war grayness, a scream that says: "there's gotta be more to life than this".  

But Rebel Without A Cause isn't very good, it's youthful angst filled with cliched youth talk that sounds embarrassing now. The success of this film and why it works is in the 'moment' and that moment passed quickly, all that's left is a dated monument to American teenage's earliest grumbling. So, it's a document more than a statement. Ray, a director I admire a lot piles on the red, this picture's look still dazzles, but where Ray often deals in a kind of psychedelic Noir, his Rebel is just too straight. Is this so the middle aged audience of the time could relate to the picture? The youth of this picture are so rich and middle class, they really are just rebelling against the boredom, poor things. The most interesting sub-text to the film is the heavy homosexual current between Dean's Jim Stark and the lost Plato (a seriously good looking Sal Mineo). It's amazing that Natalie Wood's Judy is an afterthought to the homoerotic bonding on display. 

Despite all its faults, Rebel Without A Cause is still worth a look. It's still Nicholas Ray behind the camera. The movie settles down half way through,  the characters slowly develop even if the plot is beyond simplistic. Dean's films can never live up to the legend, expectations will be crushed. He just didn't have enough time to show us if he was good or not. Still there's glimpses, here he's part Brando (when wild) and part Clift (when being sensitive). Dean is a teeny-bopper version of the method, not too deep, but cute when he's angry. And the point is, he wears a red bomber jacket like no one before or since.

Earlier on the day that I watched Rebel Without A Cause, I stood with my mother at the poetry section of a bookstore and discussed the teenage appeal to over-the-top dramatics. My point being that around the age of 17 or so, we feel sadness and happiness, love and hate so vividly that it constitutes a special state of mind/body. At that age teenagers are drawn to and touched by explosive drama, big operatic expressions of emotions – not because they display such behavior themselves but because they feel it.
That's the feeling I am left with thinking back on my own experience.

The same evening I curl up on our ocean gray couch and Rebel Without A Cause reminds me that before the birth of youth culture (with its immediate products such as rock'n'roll), there was the internal need to rebel against something (manifested in parents and in the surrounding order of the society). The dramatic overpowering teenage feeling preceded what is now known as the most glorified time of life – everybody wants to be young!

Rebel Without A Cause is a little bit simplistic and naive. All these young people are taking themselves so seriously but why are they suffering so? There are no nuances or lighter shades to emotions and actions here: when one boyfriend dies in a 'chickenrun' it takes Judy (Natalie Wood) only some minutes to warm up to the winner, Jim, who survived (James Dean). Yes, it is true, some of us do not come out alive from the dramatics of our teenage years. And some of us continue to rebel without a clear cause.

I note with strange delight that Rebel Without A Cause offers the parents or the lack of parenting as the main reason for these youths to be lost and in pain. 1955 gave the world rock music, but it was also the time when introspection through psychoanalysis was exploding into the Western mainstream.


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